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It was a very different thing, Algernon Weaver decided, actually to travel in space. When you read about it, or thought about it in terms of what you read, it was more a business of going from one name to another. Algol to Sirius. Aldebaran to Epsilon Ceti. You read the names, and the descriptions that went with them, and the whole thing--although breathtaking in concept, of course, when you really stopped to meditate on it--became rather ordinary and prosaic and somehow more understandable.
Not that he had ever approved. No. He had that, at least, to look back upon; he had seen the whole enterprise as pure presumption, and had said so. Often. The heavens were the heavens, and Earth was Earth. It would have been better--much better for all concerned--if it had been left that way.
He had held that opinion, he reminded himself gratefully, from the very beginning, when it was easy to think otherwise. Afterward, of course--when the first star ships came back with the news that space was aswarm with creatures who did not even resemble Man, and had never heard of him, and did not think much of him when they saw him.... Well, who but an idiot could hold any other opinion?
If only the Creator had not seen fit to make so many human beings in His image but without His common sense....
Well, if He hadn't then for one thing, Weaver would not have been where he was now, staring out an octagonal porthole at an endless sea of diamond-pierced blackness, with the empty ship humming to itself all around him.
It was an entirely different thing, he told himself; there were no names, and no descriptions, and no feeling of going from one knownplace to another known place. It was more like--
It was like standing outdoors, on a still summer night, and looking up at the dizzying depths of the stars. And then looking down, to discover that there was no planet under your feet--and that you were all alone in that alien gulf....
It was enough to make a grown man cry; and Weaver had cried, often, in the empty red twilight of the ship, feeling himself hopelessly and forever cut off, cast out and forgotten. But as the weeks passed, a kind of numbness had overtaken him, till now, when he looked out the porthole at the incredible depth of sky, he felt no emotion but a thin, disapproving regret.
Sometimes he would describe himself to himself, just to refute the feeling that he was not really here, not really alive. But his mind was too orderly, and the description would come out so cold and terse--"Algernon James Weaver (1942-) historian, civic leader, poet, teacher, philosopher. Author of Development of the School System in Schenectady and Scoharie Counties, New York (pamphlet, 1975); An Address to the Women's Clubs of Schenectady, New York (pamphlet, 1979); Rhymes of a Philosopher (1981); Parables of a Philosopher (1983), Reflections of a Philosopher (1986). Born in Detroit, Michigan, son of a Methodist minister; educated in Michigan and New York public schools; B.A., New York State University, 1959; M.A., N.Y.S.U. Extension, 1964. Unmarried. Surviving relatives--"
That was the trouble, it began to sound like an obituary. And then the great humming metal shell would begin to feel like a coffin....
Presumption. Pure presumption. None of these creatures should have been allowed to get loose among the stars, Man least of all. It cluttered up the Universe. It undermined Faith. And it had got Algernon Weaver into the devil of a fix.
It was his sister's fault, actually. She would go, in spite of his advice, up to the Moon, to the UN sanatorium in Aristarchus. Weaver's sister, a big-framed, definite woman, had a weak heart and seventy-five superfluous pounds of fat. Doctors had told her that she would live twenty years longer on the Moon; therefore she went, and survived the trip, and thrived in the germ-free atmosphere, weighing just one-sixth of her former two hundred and ten pounds.
Once, she was there, Weaver could hardly escape visiting her. Harriet was a widow, with large resources, and Weaver was her only near relative. It was necessary, it was prudent, for him to keep on her good side. Moreover, he had his family feeling.
He did not like it, not a minute of it. Not the incredible trip, rising till the Earth lay below like a botched model of itself; not the silent mausoleum of the Moon. But he duly admired Harriet's spacious room in the sanatorium, the recreation rooms, the auditorium; space-suited, he walked with her in the cold Earthlight; he attended her on the excursion trip to Ley Field, the interstellar rocket base on the far side of the Moon.
The alien ship was there, all angles and planes--it came from Zeta Aurigae, they told him, and was the second foreign ship to visit Sol. Most of the crew had been ferried down to Earth, where they were inspecting the people (without approval, Weaver was sure). Meanwhile, the remaining crewman would be pleased to have the sanatorium party inspect him.
They went aboard, Harriet and two other women, and six men counting the guide and Weaver. The ship was a red-lit cavern. The "crewman" turned out to be a hairy horror, a three-foot headless lump shaped like an eggplant, supported by four splayed legs and with an indefinite number of tentacles wriggling below the stalked eyes.
"They're more like us than you'd think," said the guide. "They're mammals, they have a nervous organization very like ours, they're susceptible to some of our diseases--which is very rare--and they even share some of our minor vices." He opened his kit and offered the thing a plug of chewing tobacco, which was refused with much tentacle-waving, and a cigar, which was accepted. The creature stuck the cigar into the pointed tip of its body, just above the six beady black eyes, lit it with some sort of flameless lighter, and puffed clouds of smoke like a volcano.
"--And of course, as you see, they're oxygen breathers," the guide finished. "The atmosphere in the ship here is almost identical to our own--we could breathe it without any discomfort whatever."
Then why don't we? Weaver thought irritably. He had been forced to wear either a breathing mask or a pressure suit all the time he had been on the Moon, except when he had been in his own sealed room at the sanatorium. And his post-nasal drip was unmistakably maturing into a cold; he had been stifling sneezes for the last half hour.
He was roused by a commotion up ahead; someone was on the floor, and the others were crowding around. "Help me carry her," said the guide's voice sharply in his earphones. "We can't treat her here. What is she, a heart case? ... Good Lord. Clear the way there, will you?"
Weaver hurried up, struck by a sharp suspicion. Indeed, it was Harriet who was being carried out--and a good thing, he thought, that they didn't have to support her full weight. He wondered vaguely if she would die before they got her to a doctor. He could not give the thought his full attention, or feel as much fraternal anxiety as he ought, because--
He had ... he had to sneeze.
The others had crowded out into the red-lit space of the control room, where the airlock was. Weaver stopped and frantically tugged his arm free of the rubberoid sleeve. The repressed spasm was an acute agony in his nose and throat. He fumbled the handkerchief out of his pocket, thrust his hand up under the helmet--and blissfully let go.
His eyes were watering. He wiped them hurriedly, put the handkerchief away, worked his arm back into the sleeve, and looked around to see what had become of the others.
The airlock door was closed, and there was no one in the room but the hairy eggplant shape of the Aurigean, still puffing its cigar.
"Hey!" said Weaver, forgetting his manners. The Aurigean did not turn--but then, which was its front, or back? The beady black eyes regarded him without expression.
Weaver started forward. He got nearly to the airlock before a cluster of hairy tentacles barred his way. He said indignantly, "Let me out, you monster. Let me out, do you hear?"
The creature stood stock-still in an infuriating attitude until a little light on the wall changed from orange to red-violet. Then it crossed to the control board, did something there, and the inner door of the lock swung open.
"Well, I should think so!" said Weaver. He stepped forward again--But his eyes were beginning to water. There was an intolerable tickling far back in his nostrils. He was going to--he was--
Eyes squeezed shut, his whole body contorted with effort, he raised his arm to begin the desperate race once more. His hand brushed against something--his kit, slung just above his waist. There were handkerchiefs in the kit, he recalled suddenly. And he remembered what the guide had said about Aurigean air.
He tugged the kit open, fumbled and found a handkerchief. He zipped open the closure of his helmet and tilted the helmet back. He brought up the handkerchief, and gave himself over to the spasm.